Monday, November 19, 2012


In The King’s Agent, the quest of the main characters is fueled by an imaginary work of the great Giotto, for no piece of Italian literature set in the Renaissance would be complete without the mention of the man. In 1550, Giorgio Vasari wrote the Lives of Artists; in it he proclaims Giotto di Bondone (known widely and simply as Giotto) as a founder of “the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing exactly from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years.” This dissemination of the natural style, while perhaps not begun by Giotto, was no doubt more thoroughly evolved by him than any previous purveyor of the style, a style that was an organic melding of artistic progress with human need. The natural technique provided the growing intellect of the upper classes with the clarifying interpretations of the prevalent religious themes, while bringing to the common people these same subjects in an immediate and palpable form, exposing to them to an enlightenment heretofore incomprehensible and unreal in earlier art.

And yet of this man who constructed and surmounted a major bridge in the advancement of painted works, little facts are positively known. Offered in question and theory, much of the details of Giotto’s life are subject to disambiguation. That he was born in Florence and died in Florence there can be little question. Prevalent theory holds that he was born in 1266/67 in the village of Colle Vespignano in the Provence of Florence, but a few miles north of the city proper. The legend, for it can be called nothing less, states that the famous artist Cimabue (at the time considered one of but two most widely renowned painters), while on a walking tour through the region, saw some of the child Giotto’s strangely lifelike rock drawings of sheep—which he had done while at work in the fields. So impressed was Cimabue with the youth’s talent, that Cimabue immediately asked Giotto’s father for permission to make the child his apprentice.

The deal was immediately struck, Giotto’s apprenticeship thus began when he was estimated to be about thirteen or fourteen years old. On the tail of his master Cimabue, Giotto traveled the peninsula, learning, soon participating, and quickly outshining his teacher. One lasting and enduring anecdote tells of a day in which Cimabue was absent from the studio. In that time, his precocious apprentice painted such a realistic fly on the face of his master’s painting, Cimabue tried many times to shoo it away.

As Giotto’s path found him in Rome, Rimini, Naples, Bologna, Padua and back to Florence, he made his way merrily, known as a happy man who possessed a great wit and a love of practical jokes. A favored yarn in evidence of his mischievous side relates that when a messenger from the pope arrived at Giotto’s door asking for proof of the painters genius, Giotto drew a perfect red circle—in one stroke—and sent it back in answer to the challenge. And along his joyous journey through life, he created such masterpieces as to inspire the great Dante to write of him and the masters of the High Renaissance to learn from him, such men as Masaccio, Michelangelo and Raphael. Due to the lack of ascription and the frequency of his travels, it is hard to put an exact number on his works, but it can easily be said to be near or over a hundred, consisting mostly of panel paintings and frescoes.

No discussion of Giotto would be complete without mention of the Scrovegni Chapel. Considered his masterwork, the painted interior decoration of the chapel of Enrici degli Scrovegni in Padua was completed—and signed—sometime between 1303 and 1310. Said to have been commissioned by degli Scrovengni to atone for the sins of his father, the theme of the entire work is Salvation with specific emphasis on the Virgin Mary with special dedication to the Annunciation.

Giotto’s greatest artistic gift, that which truly set him apart from other artists of his day (and a characteristic this author hopes in her own way to emulate as the writer of historical fiction) was his ability to capture and render the emotions and the soul of his subject, not just to reiterate their lives, but to bring them to life.

Three years before his passing in 1334, the city of Florence named Giotto Magnus Magister (Great Master) and appointed him the city’s head architect and chief of public works. At the time of his death, he was in the middle of constructing the Campanile, now known as Giotto’s Tower. The project was finished by one of Giotto’s most ardent followers, Andrea Pisano. Giotto was buried in Santa Maria del Fiore, the great Cathedral of Florence, at a spot to the left of the entrance marked by a white marble plaque.

Giotto’s influence on the entire scope of art, not just of that in the Renaissance, can never be devalued, but he left more than just a cataclysmic artistic legacy. Around the age of twenty, Giotto met and married Ricevuta di Lapo del Pela, whom most called “Ciuta.” The number of their offspring varies from six to eight, but it is agreed that at least one of them, Francesco, became a painter as well, though not of his father’s caliber. It is also said that, like their father, none of the children possessed any physical attractiveness. In Vasari’s Lives of Artists, the author proclaims that there was ‘no uglier man in Florence.’ When Dante visited the family he asked the artist how a man who could create such beautiful works of art managed to produce such homely children, to which Giotto replied, “I made them in the dark.”


Yves Fey said...

I adore Giotto! Thanks for this post.

Donna Russo Morin said...

You're very welcome, Yves; I'm so glad you enjoyed it. This merry fellow does seem to be a favorite of many, deservedly so!